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Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus is a divisive figure in modern history, often celebrated for his "discovery" of the New World and infamous for its repercussions. Who was Christopher Columbus? Why were his voyages so influential? And, what impact did he have on Europe and the Americas?

Christopher Columbus Facts

Who was Christopher Columbus? When was he born? When did he die? Where was he from? And what made him famous? This table will give you an overview.

Christopher Columbus Facts

Born:

October 31, 1451

Died:

May 20, 1506

Place of Birth:

Genoa, Italy

Notable Achievements:

  • First European explorer to make meaningful and consistent contact with the Americas.

  • Took four voyages to the Americas, the first in 1492.

  • Was sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

  • His last voyage was in 1502, and Columbus died two years after returning to Spain.

  • First hailed as a celebrity, he would be later stripped of his title, authority, and most of his riches due to the conditions of his crew and the treatment of the indigenous people.

  • Columbus died, still believing he had reached a portion of Asia.

Christopher Columbus Summary

Christopher Columbus's nationality can be somewhat confusing when studying the man and his voyages. This confusion is because Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. He spent his formative years in Italy until he was twenty, when he moved to Portugal. He soon moved to Spain and began his navigating and sailing career in earnest.

Christopher Columbus, Renaissance portrait of explorers StudySmarter

A Portrait of Christopher Columbus, date unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

As a teenager, Columbus worked on several trading voyages throughout the Aegean Sea near Italy and the Mediterranean Sea. Columbus worked on his navigational skills and logistical methodology for trade and sailing during these voyages and built a reputation for his knowledge of Atlantic currents and expeditions.

Did you know?

On Columbus's first expedition into the Atlantic Ocean in 1476, working for a commercial fleet of trade ships, the fleet he sailed with was attacked by pirates off the coast of Portugal. His ship capsized and burned, forcing Columbus to swim to safety on the Portuguese coast.

Christopher Columbus Route

During Columbus's career, Muslim expansion in Asia and their control of land trade routes made travel and exchange along the ancient Silk Roads and trade networks much more dangerous and costly for European merchants. This sparked many maritime nations, such as Portugal and Spain, to invest in naval trade routes to Asian markets.

Portuguese explorers Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco Da Gama established the first successful routes. They sailed around the southern cape of Africa to create trading posts and routes along the east coast of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, to Indian ports.

With his knowledge of Atlantic Currents and the wind patterns of the Atlantic coasts of Portugal, Columbus plotted a westerly route to Asia across the Atlantic Ocean. He calculated that with the earth as a sphere, there would be a little more than 2,000 miles between islands off the coast of Japan and China to the Canary Islands of Portugal.

Did you know?

The notion that Columbus sailed to prove the earth was round is a myth. Columbus knew the world was a sphere and made his navigational calculations accordingly. However, his calculations were incorrect and against his contemporaries' prevailing measurements. Most navigational experts during the time of Columbus used an ancient, and now known, far more accurate, estimation that the earth was 25,000 miles in circumference and that the actual distance from Asia to Europe sailing west was 12,000 miles. Not Columbus's estimated 2,300.

Christopher Columbus Voyages

Columbus and most of his contemporaries agreed that a westerly route might be faster to Asia with few obstacles, even if they disagreed over distance. Columbus worked to get investors in a three-ship fleet of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria flagship. However, Columbus needed financial backing to support the exuberant cost and take on the risk of such an audacious expedition.

Columbus first petitioned the King of Portugal, but the Portuguese king refused to support such an expedition. Columbus then petitioned the nobility of Genoa and was refused as well. He petitioned Venice with the same unfavorable result. Then, in 1486, he went to the King and Queen of Spain, who refused as they were focused on a war with Muslim-controlled Grenada.

Christopher Columbus, caravels spanish ships, StudySmarter

A painting by Emanuel Leutze from 1855 depicting Columbus on the Santa Maria in 1492. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

However, in 1492 Spain defeated the Muslim city-state and granted Columbus the finances for his voyage a few weeks later. Setting sail in September, thirty-six days later, his fleet saw the land, and on October 12, 1492, Columbus and his fleet landed in the present-day Bahamas. Columbus sailed around the Caribbean during this first voyage, landing in present-day Cuba, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and meeting the indigenous leaders. He returned to Spain in 1493, where the royal court greeted him as a success and agreed to finance more voyages.

Do you think Columbus purposefully lied about discovering Asia?

It is known that Columbus claimed on his deathbed that he believed he had fulfilled his charter and had found a route to Asia, proving his navigational skills and calculations to be correct.

However, Historian Alfred Crosby Jr, in his book "The Columbian Exchange," argues that Columbus must have known he was not in Asia and doubled down on his lie to preserve what little of his reputation he had left near the end of his life.

Crosby argues that there are such blatant lies or inaccuracies in Columbus's letters to the monarchy of Spain and in his journals, which he knew would be published, that he must have known he was not where he claimed to be. Columbus describes hearing familiar bird songs and species of foul from the eastern Mediterranean, birds, and animals that don't even exist in the parts of Asia he claimed to have landed. Crosby argues that he must have manipulated the facts to fit his cause and make the lands he discovered more "familiar" to his audience. In addition, he makes the legal and financial argument that if Columbus did not make it to Asia as he was chartered, he would not have been financed again by Spain.

All of this mounts severe pressure to convince people of your success, even if you have discovered two vast continents of material wealth in your failure. In addition, Crosby explains that Columbus's voyages do not being to be profitable until the second, third, and fourth journeys, during which he brings back gold, silver, coral, cotton, and detailed information about the fertility of the land—reinforcing his desire to prove his success early on to maintain proper financing.

However, Crosby does concede that due to limited primary sources, as most are from Columbus himself and his perspective and bias, Columbus may have believed his miscalculations as he discovered land approximately near the distances he predicted. And the lack of detailed European maps of the Asian islands near Japan and China would have made it difficult to disprove his theory, even as he interacted with (and Spain continued to interact with) new indigenous peoples of Central and South America.1

Columbus's other Voyages:

  • 1493-1496: The second expedition explored more of the Caribbean Sea. He landed again in Hispaniola, where a small contingent of sailors had settled from the first voyage. The settlement was found destroyed, and the sailors were killed. Columbus enslaved the local population to rebuild the settlement and mine for gold.

  • 1498-1500: The third voyage finally brought Columbus to the mainland of South America near present-day Venezuela. However, upon his return to Spain, Columbus was stripped of his title, authority, and most of his profits as reports of the settlement conditions on Hispaniola and a lack of promised wealth had made it to the royal court.

  • 1502-1504: The fourth and final voyage was granted to bring back riches and find a direct passage to what he believed to be the Indian Ocean. During the voyage, his fleet sailed much of the eastern portions of Central America. He was stranded with his fleet on the island of Cuba and had to be rescued by the governor of Hispaniola. He returned to Spain with little profit.

Christopher Columbus, transatlantic travel, StudySmarter

A map showing the routes of Columbus's four voyages to the Americas. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Christopher Columbus: Death and Legacy

Christopher Columbus died on May 20, 1506. He still believed he had reached Asia through his route across the Atlantic to his deathbed. Even if his final sentiments were incorrect, his legacy would forever change the world.

Columbus's Legacy

Even though historical evidence shows that Scandinavian explorers were the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas, there is some evidence to support that the Chinese may have. Columbus is credited for opening up the New World to the Old World.

What followed his voyages were countless others by Spain, Portugal, France, England, and other nations. The exchange of indigenous flora, fauna, people, ideas, and technology between the Americas and the Old World in the decades following the voyages of Columbus would bear his name in history: the Columbian Exchange.

Arguably the most important event or series of events in history, the Columbian Exchange, affected every civilization on the planet. He sparked a wave of European colonization, exploitation of resources, and demand for enslaved labor that would define the next two centuries. Most significantly, the effects of the exchange on the indigenous peoples of the Americas would be irrevocable. The rapid spread of Old World diseases in the New World will wipe out 80 to 90% of the native population.

The influence of the Columbian exchange makes Columbus's legacy divisive as some celebrate the creation and connection of global culture. In contrast, others see his impact as infamous and the beginning of the death and destruction of many of the indigenous peoples of the New World.

Christopher Columbus - Key Takeaways

  • He was the first European explorer to make meaningful and consistent contact with the Americas.

  • Sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, he took four voyages to the Americas, the first in 1492.

  • His last voyage was in 1502, and Columbus died two years after returning to Spain.

  • First hailed as a celebrity, he would be later stripped of his title, authority, and most of his riches due to the conditions of his crew and the treatment of the indigenous people.

  • Columbus died, still believing he had reached a portion of Asia.

  • The exchange of indigenous flora, fauna, people, ideas, and technology between the Americas and the Old World in the decades following the voyages of Columbus would bear his name in history: the Columbian Exchange.


References

  1. Crosby, A. W., McNeill, J. R., & von Mering, O. (2003). The Columbian Exchange. Praeger.

Frequently Asked Questions about Christopher Columbus

October 8, 1492.

An italian navigator and explorer who discovered the Americas. 

First European explorer to make meaningful and consistent contact with the Americas.  Took four voyages to the Americas, the first in 1492. Was sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. His last voyage was in 1502, and Columbus died two years after returning to Spain. 

His original landfall was in the Bahamas, but he explored the islands of Hispaniola, Cuba, and other Caribbean islands. 

He was born in Italy and lived in Portugal and Spain.

Final Christopher Columbus Quiz

Question

In which of the following countries was Christopher Columbus born? 

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Answer

Italy

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Question

What year was Christopher Columbus's first expedition into the Atlantic Ocean? 

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Answer

1451

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Question

True or False: Columbus made his calculations on the distance between Europe and Asia across the Atlantic believing the earth to be flat

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Answer

False

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Question

True or False: During the time of Columbus and other exploration, many of his contemporaries did not know the exact circumference of the earth.

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Answer

False

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Question

What year did Columbus begin to petition nations to sponsor his expedition west across the Atlantic? 

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Answer

1486

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Question

Though Italian born, which nation financed Christopher Columbus on his voyages west across the Atlantic? 

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Answer

Spain 

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Question

On what date and approximately were in the Caribbean did Columbus and his fleet first make landfall in the Americas? 

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Answer

October 12, 1492 in present-day Bahamas

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Question

Between 1492 and 1504 how many voyages did Columbus make between Spain and the Americas? 

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Answer

Four

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Question

During which voyage did Columbus finally make landfall on the continent of South America? 

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Answer

The Third Voyage from 1498-1500

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Question

The lasting impact of Columbus's voyage is the trade of flora, fauna, people, ideas, and diseases in the decades following his 1492 voyage. What is this event called? 

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Answer

The Columbian Exchange 

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